PowerPoint disease

This post contains an oldie but (fairly) goodie YouTube clip about PowerPoint (.ppt). I hate PowerPoint although I use it a lot out of laziness. I've been lecturing a long time and for at least half of it there was no such things as .ppt. If you had data you wanted to show, you thought long and hard about which graphs or tables because each yellow letters on blue background kodachrome slide cost $8 to $15 so you only made up ones about things you couldn't talk about from your notes or write/draw on the blackboard. I used the blackboard a lot as a lecturer because I had a tendency to talk fast and I needed something to slow me down and give my listeners time to take notes. I was also an insecure lecturer at first and had a tendency to write out my lecture, complete with definite articles, on yellow legal pads. I didn't actually read them, but I didn't actually not read them either. It would take me hours and hours to write out a lecture, and I would do it anew even if it was substantially unchanged from the previous year. My reason was that the act of writing it out and often changing it in the process forced it to go through my cerebral cortex again so I was also preparing myself and sometimes rethinking it.

Then came PowerPoint. I started it using it as a crutch, essentially as a teleprompter. Even worse, it was forcing me into certain ways of thinking and presenting -- via the dreaded "bullet point." It was no longer going as high as my cerebral cortex. It was my lizard brain lecturing. Not that the audience would know if a large reptile were actually lecturing them. Instead of looking at me, as I lecture, they are looking at the screen. An important part of contact audience contact is lost.

In recent years I've gone back to speaking without using .ppt a certain proportion of the time, but since my life is busy I find that using the dreaded Microsoft Program is often the path of least resistance. Students have come to expect it, too, and are disappointed when they find out they actually have to take notes, distilling what I have to say into their own language. Why bother when I've done it for them with "bullet points," copies of which I can give a a handout?

With that as preamble, here's the YouTube clip, featuring comedian Don McMillan (h/t Boingboing). Vintage unknown, but still current:

I've wrung my hands about this before, but I still use .ppt. Do I still make these mistakes? Let me check. It's on the next slide. I have 112 of them for my 15 minute talk.

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Oh lordy, that was great. Thanks for that video, Revere.

I have to say that when I was a student, it really was a rare lecture with slides that was any good. Of the teachers I had that taught from slides, a whopping one of them actually used slides to his advantage, improving the lecture. The others seemed to use slides for one reason and one reason only: so that they could throw huge amounts of information up in a short time.

That. Does. Not. Work.

By Jason Dick (not verified) on 24 Feb 2010 #permalink

I have to say that as a student, I love teachers using .ppt slides. You know exactly what to study for the exam and it's easier to follow what the teacher is saying. This is also the view of all the people I know. The problem with taking notes is that many of the teachers I have go extremely fast so that they can shove in as much material as possible into a lecture. It's practically impossible to understand so we just write everything down mindlessly and then read it after class. Somehow, the use of ppt slides has a mind-numbing effect on the teacher, slowing him down. And the use of computer-generated graphs and images is necessary since many of my teachers are unable to draw a square correctly.

As a student, I also appreciate a well-put together power point presentation. I'm currently in a class where a professor uses a mix, and although I took the class partially because she was teaching it, she is not organized...at all. My notes after her lectures are terrible, because she transitions from talking about one subject to another and back again without noting as much. With powerpoints, she's more organized. More importantly, it doesn't matter: I can refer back to the presentation to restructure my notes as necessary. Without that ability, I'd probably still be confused as to how abortive infections were classified as a type of persistent infections.

Your best strategy may be to make your presentation an outline with illustrations. They still have to listen to you to get effective notes, which allows you the contact you desire, but you've provided them with structure and data, charts, etc that you can point to an explain as part of the lesson as well. Sure, you could print these out- but you can save some trees by projecting it instead.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 24 Feb 2010 #permalink

Somehow, the use of ppt slides has a mind-numbing effect on the teacher, slowing him down.

My student days were back in the chalk-on-the-blackboard era, so I don't know about lectures, but my experience with talks (both conference talks and seminars/colloquia) is the opposite. It is easy to add one more slide (or modify an existing slide) to your PowerPoint presentation, so there is a tendency to show too many slides for the time allotted. With transparencies (the preferred presentation medium when I was a grad student), more planning was needed, because the supply cabinet only had a finite supply of transparencies and I could not be assured of getting more when the supply ran out. Thus when I was preparing talks with transparencies I knew roughly what all of my transparencies would be before I created the first one, and I held to the rule of spending at least one minute on each slide.

If you followed the link to Revere's 2006 post on the subject, you would have seen that using the blackboard helped to slow him down, because it takes a finite amount of time to write the key points on the blackboard. So it was with my professors when I was a student: at least with the professors who were any good at teaching, I could keep up with the blackboard writing. As for lecturers not being able to draw squares: Maybe it's from lack of practice. But as long as it's a reasonable approximation, no problem--I'm a scientist, not an art critic.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 24 Feb 2010 #permalink

Well, but .ppt has its high spots; has everyone here seen the (late 2008) "The Subprime Primer" a funny and utterly brilliant (and clear) primer indeed on that portion of the Great Recession? (It was on something called Ipublish, I think, or can be googled--worth reading if you haven't.) And for courses with absentminded professors, it must be a life-(or grade-)saver; as an undergrad, I'd a grad-level math course from a professor who was known to be tough, did not use a textbook, and could not keep straight the subscripts on his blackboard examples (taken from number theory, which most of us had not had); doubtless, preprepared .ppt slides would have helped indeed.

Here for anyone interested in a URL for the Subprime Primer (it was picked up by, and is on, numerous websites; this is just one)--http://www.subprimeprimer.com/

I'm mixed on using it. When done well ppt is a handy tool, when done poorly it's like the "man with pies" on Seasame Street - a disaster you can see coming a mile away. Some people I work with build slides that they read, with every word included. Because a significant number of my presentation are senior leadership (Federal government) briefings I don't often have a choice, and have to build slides as well as fill out comprehensive notes panels for most of them in advance.

@Eric Lund: When I made the comment about mind-numbing, I meant based on personal experience. Different people can have different experiences. The part about teachers not being able to draw squares correctly was only a slight exaggeration. Problem is: many of my classes are in statistics. There's no need for artistry in statistics but you'd expect that statisticians are able to draw an exponential function correctly. I mean, you know, a minimal respect of proportions. Apparently not. So, it helps a lot if we can see a computer-generated graph.

"I have to say that as a student, I love teachers using .ppt slides. You know exactly what to study for the exam and it's easier to follow what the teacher is saying."

You'd be sorely disappointed in my course lectures then.

I use powerpoint (not the actual application though), but the lectures I give typically do _not_ cover all and only what you need for the exam. They're highlights from the literature - stuff that needs better explanation, that deserves a more in-depth treatment, or that are not covered in the literature but still meaningful for the course.

But any exam is going to cover stuff that's only in the literature but not mentioned in lectures. There's plenty of stuff in the lectures that never shows up on the exams (hey, if I spend half and hour on something, chances are you remember it without me having to check you on it).

And I never, ever, give handouts of my slides afterwards. If I do, you'll just refer to them instead of making your own notes. Creating and revising your own notes - and checking with others to see if you missed anything and if you understood it - is a great way to learn the stuff and I'd rob you of that opportunity if I gave you the material instead.

Anyone who gives talks should watch a couple of Apple CEO Steve Jobs' keynote presentations (look up steve jobs on you tube). He is the master of the universe on giving presentations. I also recommend looking at the presentations on Ted.com--fabulous. But remember, you should switch over to Apple keynote if you want to have really stunning and cool looking presentations.

By bostonERDoc (not verified) on 24 Feb 2010 #permalink

So, again the ppt thing may be highly dependent on who the teacher is and who the student is. But, yeah I'm happy Janne isn't my teacher then. I love having the notes given to me and never understood the idea of making my own, or comparing mine with those of someone else's. The way I see it, in a course we have to learn A, B, C, D. There's no point in student X having notes for A, B, C, student Y having notes for B, C, D, etc. and then having a meeting to put it all together. Have A, B, C, D from the start, learn them for the exam and then use them at the exam. This approach got me A's until now so I don't see what's wrong with it.


You might think that a pre-prepared set of slides for a math lecture could be a good thing, but in my experience (as a math student), math-on-powerpoint is almost uniformly terrible, worse than powerpoint for other subjects.

Only with powerpoint slides can you simultaniously 1) put too much up at once, so you don't know what to look at 2) not put enough details, because you're not talking it through, but summarizing, 3) go too fast, skimming over hard bits and 4) go too slow, covering a stupidly simple point in mind-numbing detail.

On a blackboard, a bad lecturer will hit one or two of these marks, but to really screw it up, you need a set of slides. If your professor couldn't keep his subscripts straight on the board, I highly doubt he could manage to put together good slides either.

As an example of a moment where a terrible professor met terrible slides, in the first freshman physics class of the semester, the professor went over the idea of a derivative in excruciating detail, combining imprecision and long-windedness in a true virtuoso performance. Slides had to be corrected and reordered on the fly.

Then, in the last minute of the lecture, he said "and when you have more variables, it works just how you'd expect" (except, of course, when it behaves totally differently. Since I was taking multivariable calculus at the time, which has its own class, I found this hilarious).

in my experience (as a math student), math-on-powerpoint is almost uniformly terrible, worse than powerpoint for other subjects

And in my experience as a practicing physicist, I agree. I realize that sometimes when you are discussing theory in your talk you have to resort to equations. A few scientists who put some effort into the presentation even manage to pull this off successfully. But far more often the result is as you describe: I see a bunch of equations, I have no idea from looking at the slide which terms are important, and the speaker often spends too much time on an unimportant term at the expense of the terms that are important. At least with data slides the speaker has to discuss the important point of the slide.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 25 Feb 2010 #permalink

For a hilarious look at the destructive power of PowerPoint, check out the Gettysburg Address rendered as a ppt presentation.

@13: actually, if it happened that student X had notes on A, B, and C, while student Y had notes on B, C, and D, and they met to explain A and D to each other, that would be wonderful. That would in fact be exactly what educational research tells us we should aim for: students thinking about the material and explaining it to each other.

As teachers, we want students to learn the material. If you are able to get an A on the final just by printing out the powerpoint slides and reading over them, then we have failed. In an ideal world, we would be able to make students think hard about the material, discuss it, and read the literature - in short, come to really understand it. Then we'd give you all As. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to make this happen, not least because the way university courses are structured rewards "just print it out and study what will be on the exam" for both student and teacher.

Powerpoint makes it easy to remove all student thinking from the process, but I agree, so does mindlessly copying down everything on the blackboard. How should a teacher give a good lecture, with or without powerpoint? I'm still trying to figure that out. Sadly, graduate education does not seem to place any value on learning to teach.

Powerpoint makes it easy to remove all student thinking from the process, but I agree, so does mindlessly copying down everything on the blackboard. How should a teacher give a good lecture, with or without powerpoint? Mabybe the teacher should try convert PowerPoint to Video to give a interesting lecture.